Clare Dudman was the first person to review Not So Perfect, so I like her very much. And as coincidence would happily have it her latest novel, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, is published by Seren this month. So I’ve invited her over here to talk about it…
Welcome to the blog, Clare. It’s a pleasure to have you on. So, your latest book is, ‘A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees’. Who’s it for? What’s it about?
Thanks Nik – a pleasure to be here! My book is general fiction for adults – although it doesn’t contain any ‘adult’ material, sadly, so I guess it’s for anyone interested in an unusual story inspired by something that really happened.
Why did you write it? Where did the idea come from?
It is my brother’s fault. He went climbing in South America and found out about these Welsh-speaking people living in Patagonia and said I should write about it. I did a little research and this colony seemed very interesting – a collection of Welsh-speaking towns in a desert in a Spanish-speaking country. Being Welsh myself I wanted to know what they were doing out there, and what drove them out to live in such a remote and inhospitable place.
The premise is fascinating. I love the image of a Welsh community in South America. What sort of research did you have to do?
I had to do a lot of research. I spent a few days in Aberystwyth at the National Library of Wales looking at their Patagonia collection. Then, with the help of a couple of grants from the Arts Council and the Authors’ Foundation, went to Patagonia and visited the communities there, interviewing the descendents of the settlers. This entailed catching a bus across the Patagonian steppe – a fascinating but disturbing place. I also trained to become a shaman, and went for an intensive course in Welsh in the University of Lampeter. This was in addition to the usual long sojourns in the British Library and British Museum, and reading books and papers.
What does the word ‘colony’ mean to you? I, being rather anti-imperialism, have always considered it, in most ways, a dirty word. Would you agree, or do you think in this case it’s different or at least more complicated?
As a trained scientist I think of the word colony primarily in a biological way – like a daughter colony of bees, for instance. I just think of it as something that has separated itself from the rest in order to have room to grow. It think of it as a common feature of animals and plants – almost an indicator of life. So no, for me it isn’t a dirty word, but I do agree that it can be in certain conditions.
They were escaping the insidious effects of the English who looked set to destroy their culture. However, by becoming colonists they indirectly and completely unintentionally displaced another culture themselves – the indigenous Patagonian Tehuelches. The whole book is partly a comment on that irony.
I really love the title. Could you tell us a little about how that came about?
Thank you! Another important theme of the book is honesty, and how the best way to lead is through love. The Welsh colonists felt, at first, that they had been cheated. They came to Patagonia because they were promised a new Wales – with tall trees and meadows – but when they got there they found desert. They must have felt desperately disappointed. They had come 7,000 miles in atrocious conditions only to find themselves stranded, hundred of miles away from any form of ‘civilisation’ (at least any of the sort they were familiar with). When they saw the ship that had brought them there sail away they knew they had no way back. Patagonia is a bleak place, and this is a sad story, but it ends happily.
How would you say this book compares to your other works?
They are all historical. They are all a similar length. But my others had a scientific theme whereas this one does not. The others were to a large extent biographical; but this one is the biography of a community. All of them have a first person narrator to a greater or lesser extent. In my first book, Wegener’s Jigsaw, Wegener was the main first person narrator (a ridiculed German scientist); but in my second and third the first person narrator is more peripheral, an observer of the main story. In the second book, 98 Reasons for Being, this observer was a young woman diagnosed (wrongly) with nymphomania; while in A Place of Meadows, the outsider is a Tehuelche shaman.
What do you think a story needs to have for it to be great? And would your answer differ if I was asking the writer Clare, or Clare the reviewer?
As a reviewer I think a great story has to be compelling and make me realise something new – either an idea, a profound truth or a way of looking. I don’t really look for a good plot, with clever twists (though I like those too), or excitement, just something that has a good style, characterisation and a story.
I think I would give the same answer as a writer because I try to write the sorts of novels that I would like to read.
What’s your writing process?
I tend to write manically, sometimes all through the night. When I am mid-novel everything else in my life is neglected. It is the purest pleasure to me and I don’t like thinking about it too much in case I can’t remember how I do it. I never get ‘writers block’ but I do get periods when I don’t much like what I’ve written, which are intensely disappointing.
Tell us a secret.
One of my great uncles was the heavy weight boxing champion of Wales.
What’s the most important writing lesson you’ve learned?
Write for yourself, not the market or to please anyone else.
What’s next for you?
A fantasy globe-trotting novel about silkworms.
Anything you’d like to add?
Yes, just how much I love the cover of A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees! Simon Hicks, who is in charge of design at Seren, found the painting by Elisabet d’Epenoux on a website with no contact details, and I used the power of twitter to trace the artist. I think the book is beautifully produced and I’d like to thank my editor, Penny Thomas and the whole Seren team for publishing my work. I’m delighted with the result.
Clare Dudman is a British award-winning novelist and has work published by Penguin, Sceptre, Viking, Serpent’s Tail, Torr and Ambo Anthos. A PLACE OF MEADOWS AND TALL TREES, her novel about the Welsh colonisation of Patagonia (SEE 3-MINUTE FILM OF THE BOOK HERE), will be published by Seren in June 2010. More detail on this website.
(Or you could see the video here…)